Why Blind People Get ‘Freebies’…Rights or Charity?

People who are legally Blind (20/200 vision or worse with best correction), get a lot of free stuff, or perks ( or so it appears). This has led to great misconception by the general public. Other groups of persons with disabilities have expressed discontent with particular ‘advantages’ given to the Blind community. In addition, I sense  that a pervasive guilt trip is going on with many blind people.  Let me explain the kind of freebies that are at the root of  the whole issue.  While some countries have very similar policies, I will only speak to the situation as it affects most Canadians who are ‘registered’ with the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind). What sorts of ‘advantages’ or freebies do blind people have, and why do they have them? Books. Talking books and Braille books are available (usually with a free device to play the audio material on) from the central CNIB library.  Books, major magazines, and newspapers in audio or Braille format, travel back and forth, POST-FREE to people in Canada. In fact, ‘free matter for the blind’ is stamped on many items, including all BRAILLE matter, including personal letters, bank statements,  utility bills, government documents, and Braille paper stock. Other audio correspondence material travels post-free as well. These might include course tapes to a school such as Hadley  School for the Blind,  tax assessments on cassette from Revenue Canada, or the like.  All items mailed ‘free matter for the Blind’ must be mailed in unsealed envelopes or containers.  Blind students requiring textbooks, or anyone doing research or wanting specific information can request it of the national library for the blind, and they will eventually receive their information in audio, Braille, or computer disc format.  The process takes time and students often end up paying people in their community to do the job because of school project deadlines.  Why do blind people get free books and postage of same? This has to do with the right that recognizes that everyone must  have ACCESS TO INFORMATION.  The core of this right centers around other human rights, including the right to equitable  education, employment, and fair and responsible participation in the democratic process.   The reality is, that the number of people who are blind, remain disproportionate in university enrolment,  and employment.  Interestingly enough, the internet may be changing all that. Technology has given everyone more information. It is making life much easier, in some respects, and much more complicated in others, for all of us.   The Right to Information Access,  is extending into the area of web accessibility. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is suing retail giant, Target, because their web site is not accessible to people who use screen reading soft ware.  This case is drawing a lot of attention because the issue of web accessibility for the blind, in a world that has created a “digital divide” in its rapid growth, could prove to be pivotal. It might  ensure that there is universal access to services, commerce and entertainment on the web, in the same way that physical access is mandated in the ‘real world’.  The second area that gives alleged ‘perks’ to the blind, is transportation. In most urban centers where public transit exists,  registered blind people normally receive a pass for free transit. Why? For some of the same reasons the blind have Access to Information. In order to get to work, school, health care, government offices,  or to go shopping, voting, or anywhere else, blind people must rely on transit. Blind people are not permitted to drive, therefore the free transit pass was introduced as a means of protecting the right to access employment, education etc.  This is a very sensitive issue.  Other groups representing people with disabilities argue that they should have free transit too.  Indeed, in some European cities, they do. However, the argument that supports limitation of free transit to the blind, is that people who  are deaf, and some wheel chair users, are permitted to drive modified vehicles and theorectically have access.  The reality is that a large number of ALL people with disabilities,  live in poverty and will never be able to afford a vehicle of any kind, let alone one that requires expensive modifications. Many blind people never exercise the availability of this free pass, because they do not travel independantly and choose to use a form of para transit which they must pay for. Others travel with friends and family members, or they simply don’t travel at all. In the city of Halifax, the free transit pass is negotiated between the CNIB and Metro Transit. The current pass was re-issued in 2005 after a two year period when blind people were caught in a ‘negotiating’ period and were told to just carry their expired passes.  The pass issued in 2005 expires this year (2008). The air is now rank with apprehension  again, as new negotiations continue for renewal. I am disgusted by the tactics employed. Many blind people express feelings of  intimidation when they encounter unacceptable service from a Metro Transit driver. They choose not to formally complain or report drivers because they are afraid of ‘losing the pass’. There is a prevalant sense that they should feel ‘grateful’ that they have a free transit pass and should ‘just suck it up’. This is partly because they do not know their rights,  do not understand that there is recourse available to protect their rights (Human Rights complaints),  or they do not possess a sense of  full ‘entitlement’.  In the area of air and train travel,  passengers with disabilities are sometimes permitted to have an ‘attendant’ travelling with them at a free or reduced rate.  Some movie theatres provide  free admission  for ‘attendants’ accompanying a disabled person.  

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9 responses to “Why Blind People Get ‘Freebies’…Rights or Charity?

  1. Thank you for your summary and also for noting the public transit issues. I’m interested in public transit and in particular how the urban poor get around because I am frustrated to see seniors being held hostage by the Para Transit timetable and rates. In my novel Dining with Death I tried to offer a solution. Though the story is fiction my protagonists shuttle themselves around in a Get Away Van. A NGO has bought the van, fuels it up, and the seniors are responsible for keeping it clean and volunteering a driver. This way the folks avoid touring the town all morning, missing appointments, paying through the nose for lifts etc. Dining with Death is a humourous look at how some seniors get by when the rest of the society is trying to put them out to pasture. But as I said, it Dining with Death is a work of fiction – there is no fast solution or NGO that is able to offer up Get Away Vans to the folk that need them. And so folk must avail themselves to public transit with reduced rates or free passes, bum rides from family and friends, or stay home. Unfortunately, free pass doesn’t actually mean “free” movement.

    Kathleen Molloy, author – Diningwithdeath.ca
    La Mort au menu, http://www.lamortaumenu.ca

  2. Well, thanks for that shameless bit of self-promotion there Kathleen! I notice that your book, which you are so opportunistically flogging, is not available at the CNIB library for the blind. Nor is it available at the Halifax Public Library. I read some excerpts on your web site. I must say that I enjoy the concept, however I find the literary style rather odd and awkward…even a tad offensive.

  3. Hi – I am finding your blog so interesting! I am a transportation planner who used to work for a Transit Company. I also have a young daughter with a congenital eye condition which limits some of her vision. And have had a crash course in all sorts of issues relating to sight, visual acuity and field of vision. I find your blog very insightful for these reasons. Anyway, I am doing some research on this issue and stumbled across your blog.

    I remember when I worked for a transit company we were not very receptive to the needs of blind and partially sighted customers. I really hope to work to correct this and blogs like this are a good starting point for sharing experiences! I will keep reading! Keep up the good work!

  4. Hey Annie! It’s great to have some feedback. I repeat over and over to everyone (my friends will confirm this) that it’s all about quality of life. With regards to persons with disabilities, this could not be emphasized enough. Q of L is often about being comfortable with the world. Personally, I feel most comfortable when the people around me are comfortable with ME. Ergo. I blog…some might call it public awareness, others self-interest…hmm

  5. Well, I definetely think that more people could be made aware of these issues – myself included. So, if it’s public awareness, or self-interest in mind, it doesn’t matter so much because it’s informative and witty.

  6. I was looking for the dog/lightbulb joke and came across this article. thanks for posting it. As you probably know there are similar perks in the U.S. regarding books and some reduced transit fairs. Ironically enough, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) argues against these reduced fairs claiming that it’s a way of keeping blind people down to second class citizenship. They’ve also been an opponent of the efforts of the American Council of the Blind (ACB) to get paper currency which blind people can identify without help. I understand that Canada and 179 other countries have done this. Consider that another wonderful perk for the blind.

  7. I hear many arguments about the ‘free pass’ and if transit should be free or not for the blind. As far as I am concerned, transit should be free for everyone (in an ideal world). However until then, I would gladly pay bus fare, if my transit system provided me with the same service. They do not. no accessible schedules, route maps or bus stop announcement. Driver training is lacking because their ability to do a decent job when a blind person gets on (announce the bus number, indicate a seat and announce the person’s stop) is appalling. Until then, I don’t feel like I should feel like its much of a ‘free ride’.

  8. Pingback: Halifax “being fair to everyone” by eliminating bus passes for the blind « The Dingler

  9. I don’t feel the argument about limiting free transit to blind and visually impaired is accurate. There are many persons with other disabilities that are restricted or not permitted to drive: epilepsy, certain heart conditions, chronic pain syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, brain injury, some psychiatric disabilities, narcolepsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraine syndrome, etc. – persons with varying degrees of these types of disabilities have often been barred from driving, so do THEY get a free pass too? Of course not. I am not saying the blind and visually impaired should or should not; I am saying there needs to be a cultural revolution around public transit and its necessity, as opposed to its option only, for municipalities, as non-drivers continuously pay to subsidize the private vehicle in a number of ways.

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